I could start this week’s piece with a rant about inept solicitors but I won’t. Let’s try to be positive.
There was the lovely news about the person in the Netherlands who has become the first legal non-binary person. They were born with an intersex condition and has spent time living as male and female but now has settled for a non-gendered life. It was a struggle but the Dutch government finally accepted it. Perhaps it opens the way for other intersex people to adopt a similar life-style. However, I don’t think it offers too much hope for those like me who are not intersex but identify as gender-fluid or gender-variant and want to reject labelling as male or female.
Then there was the great day we had at the Hay Literary Festival last week. We always have a good time at Hay but this was different as I was contributing to a workshop on Gender, Sexuality and Identity organised by the young people’s mental health charity, Strong Young Minds. In fact I was asked to introduce the topic and guide the audience into the discussion groups. We had a good and varied audience who took part enthusiastically and the group facilitators and notetakers did a fantastic job. We hope the outcomes are greater awareness, a network for LGBTQ+ youth and further opportunities to spread the message viz. BU (i.e. be yourself).
Of course there was another highlight to the day – a peer inside the Green Room at Hay where all the speakers relax. Actually a bit more than a “peer”. We were welcomed in, given a glass of wine and had a sit down to eat our packed lunch. Oh, and the loos were pretty smart too.
This week we reach the concluding part of my SF story, Benefactors. Well, it’s the last part so far. When you get to the end you will see that it’s not really the end of the story. I have been thinking about a millennia spanning tale taking humans out to perhaps meet the Benefactors but it has rather ground to a halt at the moment. Meanwhile, I have been thinking about Jasmine Frame’s return. Yes, she will be back in a new transgender-themed crime story next week – I just have to write it. . .
Benefactors: Part 9
The change in engine note after the helicopter touched down was what woke Jock. Moments later the door opened revealing another helmeted military figure standing on a small landing field of old and cracked concrete. Jock undid his harness, stretched his arms and legs and stepped out into a cloudy evening that was considerably colder than the previous stop. Not having had his personal possessions returned to him Jock had no idea how long the journey had lasted. He looked around, seeing that they were in a valley between moderately high and rugged mountains. Scotland, Jock decided.
There was a row of single storey huts on one side of the landing field. From the distance, they looked practically derelict relicts of the Cold War or even earlier. A figure was striding towards him from the buildings. Jock thought the person was familiar. He began to walk to meet her. A few steps confirmed his hopes.
‘Professor Patel,’ Jock called, his words drowned by the roar of the helicopter taking off behind him. He turned to see it rise and turn and head off down the valley.
‘Jock!’ Helen called and ran towards him. They met and embraced in an awkward but emotional hug. ‘Thank goodness you’re here,’ Helen said when they parted.
‘I don’t know where “here” is, Professor. What’s going on?’
‘It’s Helen. We don’t need titles here and I think we’re going to be together for some time. I don’t know where “here” is either and it hasn’t got a name but it’s where we’re going to study the data in the tree genome.’
Jock stopped walking, shivered and shook his head. ‘I don’t get it. They killed my guide, destroyed the last tree, and shut me away. I thought the next stop was an unmarked grave. Now you say they want to know what the tree’s all about.’
Helen nodded. ‘I’ll explain all I can, but let’s get you inside. It’s a colder autumn here wherever we are.’ They entered the nearest building. It had paint peeling from the concrete walls and the vinyl covering on the floor was lifting in places.
‘What is this place?’ Jock said.
‘I think it was a research station from the 60s. Biological warfare I expect. It’s been mothballed for half a century but that doesn’t mean it’s been looked after. I think the government thinks it’s remote enough to keep our work secret.’
‘So we’re working for the British government,’ Jock shrugged.
‘I think so.’ Helen explained how she and Darmaan had been arrested or kidnapped depending on your point of view and how she had been facing a memory wipe given some sort of legitimacy by government anti-radicalisation laws. ‘But I convinced them that they needed to take the tree data seriously.’
‘How did you do that? They seemed to be paranoid about any of it getting out.’
‘They are but they’re more scared of others using the data first. I suggested that there may be more examples of hidden messages in genomes waiting to be found in other parts of the world.’
Jock shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. The Rift Valley was where modern humans evolved. There’s the pinch point where they almost didn’t make it. You know we’re all descended from one female. Well, perhaps there were other women in that surviving group but their descendants died out. Something happened to improve the odds of survival for that bunch of humans a quarter of a million years ago. I think it was the Tree. We were given one chance.’
‘Shh,’ Helen held a finger to her lips. ‘Keep that to yourself I don’t think they’ve had time to install surveillance yet. Let them think that we’re in a race to decode the data.’
‘Maybe we are. The Chinese mining operation that destroyed the grove could be a cover. Perhaps they took samples too.’
‘So we’ve got our work cut out.’
‘But there aren’t any trees. They’re all gone.’ Jock shook his head sadly.
Helen stopped at a steel door. She pushed on the handle. The door swung opened as if recently greased. They stepped into a small laboratory. There was plastic sheeting draped from the ceiling and covering the windows. It felt warmer than in the corridor. A bench in the centre of the room was covered with trays of small glass jars.
Jock let out a gasp of glee. He leapt forward bending to peer at the bottles. ‘They’re . . .’
‘Tissue cultures,’ Helen said leaning to look inside a bottle at the short pale shoot and the tiny leaves that were just beginning to open.
‘How. . .?’ Jock asked almost speechless as he examined jar after jar.
‘Your employers. Your un-named drug company. They had started the cultures to obtain the neuroactive drug you discovered. All their work has been transferred here along with their staff. I think the government has done a deal with the company to keep it secret.’
Jock straightened up. ‘The God-tree survives.’
Helen took Jock’s hand and tugged him back to the corridor. ‘Yes, but that’s not what we’re here for. Come on.’
They walked a little further until Helen pushed open another door. Jock was dazzled by the colours and flickering illumination. The room was filled with holographic displays hanging in the air, moving, changing, flicking off, new ones appearing. In the centre of the room, almost hidden by the maze of pictures and text, was a figure.
‘Darmaan. Jock Fraser’s here,’ Helen called. The displays disappeared revealing another drab, decaying room with a single pendant light hanging over Darmaan Adams. Darmaan stepped towards them arm extended.
‘Jock! At last. Helen’s said so much about you.’ Darmaan grabbed Jock’s hand and pumped it vigorously. Jock always considered himself an action man, a fearless explorer always prepared for the unexpected but the way today had turned out was too much for even him. He collapsed onto an old wooden stool and stared at Helen and Darmaan with his mouth open.
‘I’ll explain,’ Helen said. ‘The government guy who was organising my memory wipe believed my story of what the Tree meant. I have to hand it to them. Once they make up their mind to act things happen. I was left alone in a comfy cell for less than two days. Then they came for me and brought me here. That was yesterday evening. Darmaan arrived this morning long with the drug company guys and gals. That’s it for now except for a company of soldiers who are guarding the perimeter. I’m not sure if they are keeping snoopers out or us in.’
‘Probably both,’ Jock said. ‘Where are the tissue team now?’
‘Having some supper in the common room,’ Darmaan said.
Helen nodded. ‘We were going to join them until I heard the helicopter.’
‘And I was too engrossed here to stop,’ Darmaan added.
Jock looked around the bare and decrepit laboratory. ‘But you said this place was out of action for fifty years.’
‘It was,’ Helen nodded vigorously, ‘It’s a mess but the soldiers cleaned up some of the rooms, rigged up a power feed and brought in a water supply. As I said, they did a lot in two days. For now, we’re going to be living rough. You’re used to that aren’t you, Jock?’ Jock nodded, ‘’But we have the Tree and the data Darmaan extracted from the genome. We can make a start on understanding it.’
‘Working for the government.’ Jock said.
‘Yes, but we’re still alive with our minds intact and we have an amazing task in front of us.’
Jock didn’t look as grateful as Helen expected. ‘The drug in the Tree enabled the people to work together for the good of the race. It gave them the edge over their competitors and here we are today. We don’t know who planted the trees but what did they expect to happen when their protégés became successful enough to decode the genome.’
Darmaan said, ‘That’s what we’re going to find out.’
……………………..The End (for now)